Author Feature: Niki Burnham

Niki Burnham has burst onto the YA romance scene wowing readers with such titles as Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004), and Sticky Fingers (Simon & Schuster, 2005). According to her bio, “Niki Burnham is originally from Colorado, but when her father joined the Army, she started moving around the world, too (because she was only six years old at the time, she didn’t get a say.) She even wound up in Germany—twice. Now that she’s grown up and theoretically gets to do whatever she wants, she still hasn’t stopped moving. She currently lives in Massachusetts, where she also writes romance novels as her alter ego, Nicole Burnham.”

Could you give readers a brief sense of each of your YA titles? What inspired the stories? What about the protagonists fascinated you?

The first two books, Royally Jacked (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and Spin Control (Simon Pulse, 2004), are about Valerie Winslow, a girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother comes out of the proverbial closet and divorces Val’s father. Her father moves overseas, and Val is forced to choose where to live. It sounds heavy, and Val does deal with some serious issues, but both books are truly comedies. Val goes to live with her father in the fictional country of Schwerinborg (say that five times fast) and meets a prince. Val’s a typical sarcastic teenager–she has rebellious thoughts about everything–but she’s one of those rare individuals who is able to see people for who they are. She knows when someone is trying to put one over on her. As you might guess, I had a blast writing about her life. (Enough so that another book about Valerie will be out in June 2006!)

The third book I have on the shelves, Sticky Fingers (Simon & Schuster, 2005), is set in Framingham, Massachusetts. It’s about a high school senior named Jenna Kassarian. It’s a more serious book, as it deals with the way Jenna’s life changes after she gets an early acceptance to Harvard–the way her boyfriend’s attitude toward her changes, the way her best friend reacts, etc. Also, Jenna is a total control freak, and the book shows how that can affect someone if that perfect facade ever cracks.

Finally, I have another romantic comedy coming out in late December called Scary Beautiful. It’s about Chloe Rand, a high school junior whose longtime boyfriend just dumped her cold in the middle of the airport terminal in Denver. Chloe is one of those girls who’s beyond pretty, and she discovers that when you’re the prettiest girl in school and suddenly single, everyone’s attitude toward you changes. Girls don’t trust you, boys aren’t sure what to make of you, and everyone assumes you’re stuck up, your life is easy, etc. Chloe was interesting to write because in fiction, we often see the not-so-pretty girl as the outsider. Here, the pretty girl is the one who’s the outsider who feels no one understands her.

You were already publishing romance novels for the adult market when you decided to add YA books to your writing. What inspired you to branch out? What about writing for teens appealed to you?

A friend of mine, Lynda Sandoval, writes young adult books for Simon & Schuster. She sent me a few titles she thought I’d find funny, and said, “Nic, you really should be writing YA. It’s your voice. Read these and tell me I’m wrong.” I wasn’t so sure, but I started reading the books she recommended and fell in love with them. And Lynda was right–writing for teens is a very natural thing for me. It’s partially because I remember my high school years (and all the emotional ups and downs) vividly, and partially because I think the teen years are such fertile ground for stories. It’s the time in your life when you’re experiencing a great deal of change. You’re earning who you are, you’re learning what you can and can’t trust about the world around you.

What are the challenges of writing a love story? What do you, well, love about it?

Especially for teenagers, love is a complicated thing. There’s always a push-pull between what your brain is telling you is right and what your heart wants to do. There’s also a push-pull between what you believe to be right and what society believes. I like writing about that push-pull. In addition, relationships are also a great tool for showing character growth–we’re always more interested in reading about characters who learn (or don’t!) from their mistakes and seeing how their perspectives change.

You’re one of the lawyers-turned-writers. What inspired the switch? Does your legal background help you in any way?

I knew, probably by about halfway through my first year of law school, that it wasn’t something I wanted to do my entire life. I was decent at it, but it wasn’t something I burned to do, so I started looking elsewhere. I knew I was a good writer, so I focused on that.

As to my legal background helping me–I’d like to think it does, since I spent all that time and money on my legal education. hile it is handy when I have a publishing contract I need to read and understand, I’m not sure it affects my writing at all.

What advice do you have for beginners interested in writing YA romance?

Read, read, read. So many people think there’s a ‘secret’ to writing YA. That you have to know someone in the business, that you have to have the right agent, etc. It’s not true at all. The real secret? You have to write a good book.

So my advice? To write a good book, you first have to be able to recognize good writing. Then, you need to learn from it. So read a ton. And whenever you read a book, take notes on what does and doesn’t work for you. Does a character resonate with you? Why or why not? Are there certain storylines or character situations that speak to you? Why or why not? That kind of analysis will point you in the direction of what you should be writing. You’ll learn a lot about how to write simply from reading and studying authors you find captivating. Word of warning: don’t imitate. Learn from the authors you enjoy, then go out and do your own thing. Readers want something new and fresh.

Finally–you’ve gotta sit your tail in a chair and write. I meet a lot of so-called ‘authors’ who spend very little or no time writing. This is a career you pursue because you absolutely love it. (And that passion for your work will show in your writing!)

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read a lot (no surprise there!) and I like to garden. I’m always out in my yard doing something. I also play softball in a women’s league in my town–we have a fantastic time.

Cynsational Note

Nic and I became pals as classmates at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. I noticed that the Princeton Review ranks U of M Law #2 in the U.S. for “career prospects.” Hm. Do you think they took future authors into that equation?

Cynsational News & Links

Today kicks off Banned Books Week.

Thanks to author Anastasia Suen for her e-card congratulating me on the permanent position at the Vermont College/Union Institute and University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults! Most appreciated. Read a recent cynsations interview with Anastasia Suen.

Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Leda Schubert: official site of the author of Here Comes Darrell, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Candlewick, 2000) and Ballet of the Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook, 2006).

You’ve Got the Look: The Author Photo from Agent 007.